Few active links remain to Detroit’s Tiger Stadium

The final pitch at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, September 27, 1999.

Earlier this month the Houston Astros staged a mock memorial service for Carlos Beltrán’s glove. The veteran designated hitter hadn’t played in the field since mid-May and his teammates decided to roast the geezer. (When you’re cruising the way the AL-leading Astros are, you can let your hair down.) Then they quickly had to raise the glove from the dead as Beltrán made three starts in left field over the next two weeks.

Before long, perhaps after this season, both Beltrán and his glove will bid farewell to the major leagues. When it happens, Tiger fans will mourn yet another lost link to beloved Tiger Stadium. Beltrán is the last active MLB hitter who played there. Only Bartolo Colón—who is trying to stick in the Twins’ rotation after being cut by the Braves, but is reportedly mulling retirement—also played at Michigan and Trumbull. (Colón made his fourth career start there back in 1997.)

Beltrán didn’t just appear at Tiger Stadium: he is forever linked with its final game. In the top of the ninth inning on September 27, 1999, with the game put away the previous inning by Robert Fick’s legendary grand slam, the Royals’ rookie center fielder came up with two outs and nobody on, looking for his fourth hit of the day. Instead, he struck out at the hands of Todd Jones, making the final out in the history of Tiger Stadium.

For Tiger fans, the moment was triumphant but bittersweet. The strikeout was an emphatic way to close out a memorable win in a historic game. And yet, in the instant after Beltrán swung and missed, it started to sink in that we would never see another pitch at The Corner.

Beltrán played for the Royals through 2004, his first All-Star season, and then, after a brief stop with the Astros, careened to the Mets for seven seasons. In fact, Mets fans bitterly remember Beltrán for a different game-ending strikeout: he struck out looking against the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright to end Game Seven of the 2007 NLCS.

After knee surgery in 2010, it looked like Beltrán’s playing days could be numbered. Instead, he revived his career with the Cardinals, Yankees, Rangers, and a return to the Astros. He made four more All-Star Games (for a career total of nine), including last season’s. He passed Ted Williams on baseball’s all-time hit list last year; he’s now 68th, within reach of Lou Gehrig. He turned 40 in April.

A recent Sports Illustrated feature on pro athletes over 40 chose Beltrán as its model of baseball longevity. The piece said Beltrán overhauled his nutrition and fitness after his 2010 surgery to prolong his career, and now urges his young teammates to do the same. That includes Carlos Correa, who was five years old when Beltrán struck out at Tiger Stadium.

Last season, Beltrán had more company in the category of active players who played at Michigan and Trumbull. A.J. Pierzysnki made one start there as a rookie with the Twins in 1998 (he went 0-for-3 with a strikeout). David Ortiz made two pinch hit appearances, also with the Twins that year, going 0-for-2. (He would get his revenge on the Tigers much later.) Alex Rodriguez first played at Tiger Stadium in 1994, just before the season-ending strike, going 1-for-3 against David Wells. He hit for the cycle there in 1997.

But as of Opening Day this year, it was down to Beltrán and Colon. On May 9 of this year, Beltrán homered off Colon, which Sports Illustrated called “a rare instance of quadragenarian-on-quadragenarian crime.” But despite Colon’s vow to pitch until he’s 45, it’s not certain either player will be in the big leagues in 2018.

Beltrán is also on a very short list of active players who played in the 1990s at all. It’s just him, Colon, and Adrián Beltré. Beltré, who began his career in 1998 at age 19, played for the Dodgers, and their interleague schedule never took them to Detroit during his first two seasons. (Neither, it should go without saying, did the postseason.) But Beltré is a marvel of longevity, closing in on 3,000 hits and the Hall of Fame.

If you’re wondering, the last remaining Tiger to play at Tiger Stadium was Francisco Cordero, who played his rookie year with Detroit in 1999. He made 6 appearances for the Astros in 2012 before calling it a career. Of course, the Tigers’ strongest connection to Tiger Stadium’s farewell season is Brad Ausmus, who was the team’s captain and only All-Star that year. He made a brief address to the crowd on behalf of the current team during the closing ceremony. But few expect him to stay in Detroit when his contract expires this year.

For those of us who cherish our memories of Tiger Stadium, it’s sad to see these last links to The Corner broken, one by one. It’s depressing enough to realize that no Tiger fan under voting age ever saw a game there. As long as Beltrán stays around, it’s as though the place hasn’t completely faded into the past tense.